It was something of a mini horn fest the Nova Chamber Music Series offered Monday at the Museum of Fine Arts, showcasing the talent of the Utah Symphony's William Barnewitz, who last year carried off the top prize in the American Horn Competition.
That meant a variety of horns in, more interestingly, a variety of contexts, ranging from the unaccompanied terrors of Vitaly Buyanovsky's "Espana" - a supervirtuosic evocation of that country - to the almost concerto-like ensemble writing of Beethoven's E flat major Sextet, his Op. 81b.In the first, Barnewitz's formidable technique was to the fore, encompassing everything from its Andalusian-type fanfares and devilish trills to the flourishy blat at the end. Dynamic shifts were especially well managed, some amazingly soft playing alternating with the more forceful passages.
After which we moved to the world of German art song, by way of Schubert's "Auf dem Strom" and Morris Rosenzweig's choral arrangement of "Des Baches Wiegenlied," the final song in the same composer's "Die schoene Muellerin."
Written as a valedictory to Beethoven, "Auf dem Strom" ("On the River") was originally for tenor, horn and piano but today is nearly always sung by a soprano. Thus it was JoAnn Ottley who movingly delivered the song's message of parting, aided by a more subdued Barnewitz and the supple pianism of Marjorie Janove.
The Rosenzweig arrangement was likewise conceived as a memorial, in this case to his University of Utah colleague Vladimir Ussachevsky. As the text ("The Brook's Lullaby") mentions the "hunting horn," its use is appropriate (especially the distant calls at the end). But it is the chorus that counts here and, despite a tendency to swallow some of the German vowels, the Utah Opera Men's Chorus under Lynn Jemison-Renner carried out their assignment with strength and dignity. (Sue Hudson manned the other horn, Konrad Nelson the harp).
Nelson was also on hand for Franz Strauss' (Richard's father) "Nocturno," an appealing slice of 19th century German romanticism a la Weber and Mendelssohn. The problem was, his unremittingly thick sound nearly overwhelmed Barnewitz's, which was beautifully recessed and even-toned even in the climaxes.
That was less true of his Bach, here an arrangement by Laurindo Almeida of the B flat major Clavier Partita (BWV 825) for horn and guitar. For despite the rhythmic pointing of guitarist Steve Lyman, individual sections frequently took a while to settle in and one was far more aware of the technical difficulties this music poses vis-a-vis the horn.
Not so Beethoven's Op. 81b, which despite the opus number is in fact an early work. Indeed at times the writing seems to come right out of Mozart (bespeaking a familiarity with that master's horn concertos) and here it was flavorfully projected by both Hudson and Barnewitz.
Nor did the strings let down - here violinists Barbara Scowcroft and Veronica Kulig, violist Ralph Matson and cellist Ellen Bridger - with especially deft work from Scowcroft and Matson. The result was a cheerfully bucolic reading that, for all its precision and verve, allowed one to savor this unconventional combination in unhurried fashion. And the art that was apparent in not only the writing but the playing as well.